Reorienting after being knocked out always felt a bit like studying a crime scene. Victim and detective: Ludger Will Kresnik.
He was laying in his underwear, bandaged, on some random inn bed in…Kanbalar, judging by the snow outside the window. There was the lingering medicinal taste of a life bottle on his tongue. Sluggish probing of his chest revealed no open wounds, just dark bruising.
Ah, that brought back some memories.
The Hydro Blade had to have been the worst Elite Monster they’d fought so far. Its tail was about as wide as Ludger was tall, and it was covered in thick, frozen blocks of ice. Hazily, Ludger recalled that tail slamming into him. He’d flown a good distance, hit the ground, and slid even farther, until the ice underneath him dipped. He remembered, after that, the horrifying realization that there was only air beneath him— the moment when he knew he wasn’t sliding any more— he was falling—
Mercifully, his memories grew vague, fading away like a morning dream.
Something was pawing at his nose.
“Rollo!” Elle shouted with all the bedside manner of a flame grenade. “Ludger’s resting, and you’re not supposed to bother him!”
Her presence simplified the orienting process, somewhat. Nothing could have gone too terribly if she was here with him.
Ludger opened his mouth to greet her, and found his throat raw. He cleared it painfully and started to shift upright, gritting his teeth with the effort of the movement. The mattress barely sank with Elle’s weight beside him.
“Ludger! You’re actually awake— way to go Rollo!”
Ludger managed to get an eye open long enough to catch Elle scratching under Rollo’s chin— and glaring at him. “You should’ve called me the second you woke up!”
“Sorry,” Ludger managed, 80% confusion, 20% fondness (a typical ratio, with Elle) as he turned onto his side and glanced at the room. He recognized it properly now. It was a two-bed he’d shared with Jude and Elle before they’d set out to the Kukhar Ice Caverns. Rowen and Alvin were staying in the room next door. Jude’s stuff was spread out hastily on the other bed— a medical kit was wide open, bandages strewn about.
Well, that solved the mystery of who fixed him up. Ludger couldn’t help but let out a small relieved sigh. Jude was safe. But that still left—
“Are Alvin and Rowen okay?”
“Worry about yourself first!” Elle grumbled, giving his shoulder a push.
“Oh, sorry,” Elle said, retracting her hand. “They’re fine. We made a strategic retreat—” she enunciated the words in a way that made it abundantly clear she had just learned how to use them. “—after Jude fished you out of the lake.”
That’s where he fell.
Ludger had rolled right off the cliffside and into the water, although that part was blurry outside of the initial glacial impact.
He did, however, remember being outside the water— shaking in deep, full-body tremors. He hadn’t been able to breathe. Hands had pushed against his chest, and pressed down, down, down, hard, and something awful had connected. Ludger’s lungs had exploded into violent fireworks.
“Right,” Ludger made himself say, shuddering. It was best not to consider that memory any longer— Elle might worry. “How long was I out?”
“Hours. Alvin wanted to draw on your face but I stopped him.”
Ah, priorities. Ludger felt a relived smile form on his face, even as the sharper memories of retching water pressed against the back of his eyes.
“Sounds like him,” he murmured. He was fairly certain, even in his woozy state, that Elle had only stopped Alvin so she could take the marker herself. He’d have to check himself out in the mirror later— it wasn’t like her to miss opportunities. “Thanks, Elle.”
“No problem!” Elle grinned, and the mischief in her eyes completely gave her away. Ludger leaned back into the cushy inn pillows with a sigh. He was sore.
“Are you gonna sleep again? You looked really bad you know,” Elle mumbled. “All pale and wet. Jude had to give you air and stuff, which got all the water out of you, but then you passed out again.”
"Sorry,” Ludger whispered, eyes half-shut— before his whole body tensed.
Jude gave him air.
It was entirely the wrong thing to focus on, but Ludger’s stupid pining didn’t seem to care. In desperate horny reflex Ludger grabbed the memory he had previously buried and mined through it for Jude’s lips.
A new, clear voice came from the doorway, interrupting him.
“Ludger! How are you feeling?” Jude. His shoulders were slouched as usual, but he was dressed down— just in his pants and undershirt.
“Looks like Sleeping Beauty woke up a third time,” Alvin grinned beside him. “Good to see you, pal. Gave us all a scare— you know you’re supposed to wake up with a kiss, not pass out, right?”
Jude’s eyes narrowed, and Ludger felt steam fill his entire body.
“Alvin, can you let Ludger be conscious for five minutes without trying to make things weird?”
“Oh, come on. Surely he remembers that. It was enough of a shock to his system.”
“It is a basic medical procedure. I was saving his life.”
“Basic medical procedures don’t involve getting handsy.”
“Huh?” Ludger asked, voice high. Handsy? Please?
“I did not ‘get handsy’. Can we just drop this?” Jude grumbled, red-faced. “Er, sorry Ludger. I’m sure your head must be spinning right now. Can— Do you remember anything?”
“You, uh, got me,” Ludger confirmed, sluggishly raking a hand through his dyed hair and attempting to pry the word handsy from his mind. “I…can’t remember much. It’s all pretty vague.”
“That’s normal,” Jude offered, the genuine concern in his voice ebbing away all of Ludger’s desperation. “I’m so glad you’re okay, Ludger.”
Something warm tickled in the back of Ludger’s head at the sentence, but when he tried to think on it further, Jude was already turning to Alvin.
“We really should be clearing the room so Ludger can rest properly. He’s due for another round of healing.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice, kid. I just came down here to pick up the squirt.”
“Me?” Elle blinked. “Why are you picking me up?”
“Rowen and I are going to hitch a ride back to Trigleph. Milla’s apparently chomping at the bit to make Ludger some sort of get-well-soon present. She claims she needs your specialized assistance.”
“She…is?” Jude asked.
Ludger was dubious. He glanced at Alvin just in time to catch a quick wink directed at him. He raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t tell her I told ya, okay?”
“Milla?” Elle grinned, abruptly looking a little bashful and hopping out of bed. “Well, I guess I can help her out if she really needs it. Jude, you’ll look after Ludger, right?”
“Of course. He’s through the worst of it, I promise.”
“He better be!” Elle nodded. “Don’t knock him out again, okay?”
“It was a lifesaving measure,” Jude repeated, face blank.
Alvin whistled. “If that’s what they teach you in med school, I followed the wrong career path.”
“Leave him alone, Alvin,” Ludger argued, entirely to cool his own face.
“Alright, alright. You two are turning into the no-fun brigade, you know that?” Alvin whined, making his way to Ludger’s bedside. To his surprise, Alvin pressed a hand against his forehead, concern flickering across his face for a moment.
His voice lowered. “You really don’t remember much about it, huh?”
Ludger stared at him, shaking his head. The concern was gone as quickly as it arrived, and Alvin promptly stepped back and headed for the door.
“Well, I’m just glad you’re okay, pal. Get some rest so you can buy me drinks later.”
Ludger’s eyes narrowed. “Shouldn’t you be buying the drinks? I paid last time.”
“Damn, your brain must really be scrambled if you think it’s my turn to pay.”
“Alvin,” Jude interrupted, before Ludger could show Alvin just how intact his memory was. “He probably shouldn’t be drinking for a while.”
“Aw, sorry Ludger, looks like I’ll be paying for your water then, doctor’s orders. Cute whiskers by the way.”
“Alvin!” Elle burst out. “He’s not supposed to know yet!”
The door slammed shut behind them, but Alvin’s dry laugh could be clearly heard through the wood.
Falling back to the bed, Ludger felt his cheeks. They were warm and smooth, no sign of any hair growth, which could only mean one thing:
“Elle drew on my face, huh?”
“Cat whiskers,” Jude confirmed, smiling a little. He was sitting on his bed, cleaning up the remnants of his medical kit. “They look pretty good, but I can get you a cloth to wipe them off if you want.”
“Too tired,” Ludger mumbled, eyes slipping shut.
Jude’s voice softened and drew closer. “You just try to relax for now, okay? Mind if I touch you?”
Anywhere, Ludger thought, stupidly, but at least had the remaining cognizance to keep that particular offer under wraps. “Yeah.”
“Where does it hurt the most?” Jude asked.
Ludger tried to point, then realized he was too tired to lift his arms. He spoke reluctantly.
He was rewarded with Jude’s hands. The pain at the base of his chest ebbed as fingers patiently trailed up and over his bandages in cursory exploration. Ludger’s whole body relaxed, nestling back into the mattress. Spirit artes. Incredible.
“I should’ve been born in Rieze Maxia,” he sighed.
“That would give you an unfair advantage. Three weapons and spirit artes? You have to keep things even for the rest of us.”
“Mm,” Ludger considered. “Says the one with martial arts, a doctorate, and magic.”
“Technically, those are my three weapons.” Jude smiled lightly, hands lifting from Ludger’s chest to trace down his throat. “Everything is balanced for a reason.”
Calloused fingers brushed away the soreness before returning to the darker bruises on his chest. Ludger handed himself over to Jude’s skilled artes, breath deepening as they effortlessly repaired blood vessels and made everything inside him flow just perfectly.
It felt way, way too good.
A sluggish memory surfaced: Ludger, barely conscious, head in the crook of Jude’s arm— freezing, but safe. He was trying to say something to him, something important. What was it?
Ludger slowly forced his eyes open, and found Jude focused on his work, fingers glowing slightly. His face was placid, but his eyes were warm.
In his mind, he saw a different Jude— this one with a blurrier face and wet hair sticking to his cheeks. Light from the ice flowers in the cavern made his pale skin glow— in that moment, Jude looked like a spirit in his own right.
The words rose to Ludger’s mind immediately, effortlessly, as he blinked slowly.
Right, that was it.
That had always been it, with Jude, but Ludger had said it this time. He’d said it, and Jude’s breath had caught. Jude had looked at him, and his fingers had curled against his hair almost desperately.
I’m so glad you’re okay, Ludger. I…
A hand pressed against his cheek, cold from the water, and turned his face. Flames licked at the edge of Ludger’s bursting heart.
Jude was bringing their mouths together, gently at first, but then harder, growing in passion. Jude kissed him slowly, slower than Ludger ever let himself picture. Ludger lost his body— lost track of everything that wasn’t Jude’s mouth and—
Ludger jolted awake with a startled gasp, and Jude jumped, hands raising.
“You okay? It looks like you nodded off for a second there. You can sleep if you’re tired,” Jude offered, tilting his head a little.“No need to keep yourself awake—”
Ludger shook his head so quickly it hurt. He gaped at Jude, Jude who kissed him after saving his life.
“Alvin was right,” Ludger blurted.
Evidently those were the three worst words to say to Jude as his entire face crinkled.
“Are you okay?”
“You kissed me,” Ludger stated, heart spilling all over the floor.
Jude turned red instantly, his hand quickly covering his own mouth as he cleared his throat, red-faced. ”Ah. I. Yes. I did. Are you sure you want to talk about this now? I’m sure you’re tired—”
No way was Ludger too tired for this. He wanted to leap out of bed. Run around the room. He gaped at Jude. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“And make you deal with Alvin and Rowen’s teasing while recovering from a near-death experience?”
The response was too quick, too prepared. Ludger clued into the real reason immediately. “You don’t want to knock me out twice.”
Jude shut his eyes. “You need to rest. I was impulsive, and you were… I should have let you recover— I should let you recover, now.”
“No, knock me out,” Ludger requested, a little too quickly. He quickly buried his face in his hand. How was it possible to be simultaneously elated and embarrassed beyond all measure? “I mean, you won’t this time. Or if you do— it’d be worth it.”
Jude sat down, the mattress squeaking with his weight. He pushed gently at Ludger’s shoulders so he was leaning back against the pillows.
“Worth it or not, let’s try to avoid that. You should lay down first.”
With Jude hovering over him like this, Ludger would do anything he asked. He nodded, dumbly, leaning back and reaching for Jude’s face. Holding it didn’t seem real. His skin was soft and smooth, and Ludger could spend days just looking at Jude— just touching him.
Jude turned away a little, breath leaving him in a slightly overwhelmed sigh.
“It’s just—” Jude breathed out again, pressing their foreheads together. His left hand gripped Ludger’s shoulder tightly, while his right hand settled on the pulse point of Ludger’s neck.
“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Jude whispered.
Ludger swallowed, the full weight of what almost happened settling in his chest. His hand covered Jude’s wrist, tracing the veins there.
“I’m here, Jude.”
Ludger hesitated, running his fingers through Jude’s soft hair. When he was still quiet, Ludger switched tactics. He tilted his head, offering him a small smirk.
“You’re leaning over me in my underwear, and you’re busy thinking of pulling me unconscious out of a lake?”
Jude’s reaction was better than he could have hoped: his eyes snapped to Ludger’s, and then hesitantly scanned down the rest of his body. He seemed flustered, a little offended, and unable to think about anything other than their current situation.
“Good point,” he finally mumbled, looking up.
Ludger kissed him.
He meant to keep things slow, a pleasant rewrite of their first kiss, but when Jude sucked on his lower lip with unexpected force, Ludger realized they weren’t rewriting anything— they were moving on.
This time, Ludger was going to remember every minute.